Love, marriage and impending middle age may seemed to have mellowed the Manics. But just don't start Nicky Wire on politics, writes Ian Watson
When Nicky Wire was at school, as soon as someone he hated got into his favourite band he went off them.
When "the casuals and flat tops" discovered The Smiths circa 'Panic', Wire dropped them. Same with Echo And The Bunnymen when they were championed by U2 fans. Even - and he laughs at himself when he admits this - The Wedding Present. One minute he was obsessed, the next indifferent. And he still thinks like that now he's a married 35 year old father. Only these days it's not bands he's abandoning but politics.
"Know Your Enemy was one of the most politicised albums ever," Wire says, referring to the Manic Street Preachers' last album. "Unfortunately it was four years before every fucker else got interested in politics. It took everyone else a war. Where have these people been the last four years? Forty years? American foreign policy's never changed. There's a track called 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children' on Know Your Enemy about forcing freedom on societies that says everything we ever needed to say. So there's hardly any politics on the new record. It didn't feel comfortable joining a debate which includes Green Day, Chris Martin and Fran Healy."
One thing Wire won't be giving up any time soon is his love for a barbed quote, delivered with broad, knowing grin. Green Day are "my idea of what punk never was. You take the artistry out of punk and you're left with that." On REM, "they talk about their album being political, but it's the most oblique, vague politics I've ever come across." As for the Travis frontman, "Fran's a great songwriter, but how can he write songs like 'Flowers In The Window' when the Afghanistan war's going on?" Wire says his favourite TV program is Newsnight and you can just imagine him snug in his armchair every evening, shouting at the screen with glee.
Rather than join the "bandwagon", the Manics have returned with 'The Love Of Richard Nixon', a single seemingly defending the disgraced American president. "It's a metaphor for the fact you're always remembered in your life for one thing. Nixon's always going to be remembered for Watergate and being a crook. But he was a brilliant politician. He wasn't like George Bush. He wasn't a fucking idiot. He was the first American president to go to China, which was an amazing piece of foreign policy. Kennedy sent the first troops to Vietnam, Kennedy invaded Cuba in the Bay Of Pigs. But everyone remembers him in a nice way. And most people associate us with Richey going missing. Even your family sometimes associate you with one or two things, which you can never escape. So the idea of the song is just digging a bit deeper."
Typically for a songwriter who's spent his career asking questions, Wire says he's interested in the pragmatism of politics. While he admits Bush is "a fucking disaster", he qualifies that with, "But all American presidents are the same. The idea that Bill Clinton is great guy, he hangs out with Bono, he did this, he did that. Well, what about Rwanda? 750,000 people dead in three months, he didn't lift a finger. Neither did the UN, neither did France, neither did Germany. Perhaps Bush would have gone in and saved lives."
Tony Blair also gets a cautious thumbs up. "If you take Iraq out of the equation, this Labour government has been brilliant. You can't have that much economic growth and slight redistribution of wealth and not give it a bit of credence. But Iraq's going to blacken Blair's term forever."
Even though Wire claims he's "bored shitless" with talking about politics, one song on the new album, Lifeblood, is directly political: 'Emily', about Emily Pankhurst. "It's about the idea of Princess Diana taking over the role of the female icon. Someone as vacuous and empty as Princess Diana being a feminist icon is just beyond belief. The idea that the suffragettes threw themselves under horses to get the vote seems like such an utterly distant memory. Like another… not a century, like before Christ almost."
Again, the song's a metaphor, this time marking the passing of simpler, possibly more dramatic times. In the early days of the Manics, "you could mix your politics with a glamorous abandon. Life was just much easier. And it's just not like that now. We live in a serious world." When he was younger, Wire still had idealism. 'Emily' is admitting that the serious world has stamped that out.
"It's about losing hope in politics," Wire nods. "I've had to come to terms with the fact that communism doesn't work. There's a line in '1985', 'In 1985, I placed a bet and lied'. That's the idea of convincing yourself that political systems can actually change the world. And you can't deny that capitalist western democracy has been dominant. That's sad. Political theory is dead. Everything is about causes now. All worthy causes, but it's all done within a capitalist framework."
Know Your Enemy sold badly, Wire admits. It was, he says, "a deeply flawed, highly enjoyable folly". So, even though Wire jokes that the Manics' type is the "political stiff album", they've reverted to the polished, stadium rock of This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. To the outsider, it feels as if the band are finally giving in. Wire doesn't seem perturbed. "We've given ourselves the freedom to fail with a smile this time. I'm definitely less bitter. We were always bitter about everything. Cynical and bitter. That's what made us. Our albums were always full of hate. For the first time, I think there's a bit of love on this album."
There's also one very obvious ghost: the Manic's theorist Richey Edwards - a "wayward genius" believes Wire - who went missing in 1995. "The main themes are death and solitude and ghosts," explains Wire. "Being haunted by history and being haunted by your own past." Edwards is the heart of 'Cardiff Afterlife', the unspoken shadow behind 'Fall Asleep', a song about suicide and relief. "Sleep is beautiful for me. I hate dreaming because it ruins ten hours of bliss. I had a lot of bad dreams when Richey first disappeared. Not ugly dreams, but nagging things. Until we wrote 'Design For Life', it was six months of misery." Lifeblood doesn't seek to exorcise Edwards' ghost, though, just admits that "there are no answers".
Wire finds happiness these days by isolating himself. "I think solitude is a really positive thing. I cherish solitude immensely. In today's society, there's so much pressure to communicate, eat out, be friends with people. Why can't you read a book on your own? Why have you got to have a book club? I despise kissing as a greeting. Why can't you just shake hands and fuck off? The four of us with Richey all cherished that moment when you're watching telly, thinking, writing, whatever. It's just a beautiful thing."
Wire's been doing a lot of writing recently, both songs and "bitter, cynical, un-PC tirades and rants" which he plans to publish as a book called "The Unwritten Diaries". The latter are a safety valve, "all the stuff I try to filter out of my head not to get me in too much trouble when I do interviews. If you're being honest, you do make a lot of mistakes." Does he look back at things he said and think he went too far? "Oh, I've been a complete fucking idiot. Anyone who says they don't regret anything, I don't believe. I regret shitloads of things." Saying, "I hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury" perhaps? "That was just bad. There's no way around it, it was just idiocy. Even worse was 'travellers should be rounded up and put on an island'. That's just idiotic. That makes me look thick."
All of which begs the question, what is the point of the Manic Street Preachers in 2004? To newcomers, they're probably an irrelevancy, something Wire happily admits. "I don't know if we're relevant to people who love Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines. I'm not sure. We might be relevant to Dido fans. I don't really care." To those of us who've grown up with the Manics, however, watching them tackle their own history as they change with approaching middle age is still a fascinating occupation. "I think our relevance lies in what people expect of us really," Wire nods.
If Lifeblood was the last Manics album, how would Wire feel? "I'd feel fine," he shrugs. "I could look at James and Sean, and Richey if he turned up, straight in the face and know we've done the right thing. And I probably couldn't have done that with Know Your Enemy."
What would he do? "I'd do fuck all," he beams. "I've got no problems about the band finishing. The joy of just thinking. I've got a whole day in front of me to watch telly, fiddle about in my shed and maybe do a bit of writing. I have no problems with boredom. We've been swamped by bungee jumping culture. We must search for excitement. We must go white river rafting, climbing, exploring. Who gives a fuck? What is the point in climbing a mountain? In fact, I think climbers are much more selfish and egotistical than any rock stars. Explorers are the vainest fuckers in earth. Yachtswomen! How fucking vain are they…" And on and on he goes. Looks likes it'll be some time yet before we've heard the last from Nicky Wire.